Reconsidering the Toyota Prius in an Electric Car World

There’s no love lost between diehard fans of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid and true believers in the all-electric Nissan LEAF. That’s the feeling you got from fan websites for the respective electric vehicles in the months leading up to the introduction of the Volt and LEAF. In fact, in the summer, it led some EV advocates, like Mini E driver Tom Moloughney to call truce. “These cars are different enough that they can both succeed without cannibalizing the other’s sales,” Tom wrote on PluginCars.com. “A healthy debate is always a good thing, just remember, we’re all on the same side in this fight.” The Toyota Prius was brought into the fray when G.M.’s chief executive Dan Akerson said that he “wouldn’t be caught dead in a Prius.”

The three vehicles can now be dissected for their advantages and pitfalls. Some are arguing that the economic and environmental merits of the Toyota Prius are of equal or greater value than the Volt and LEAF.

Cost-Effectiveness

A few days ago, the venerable Consumer Reports had its staffers use the Chevy Volt on daily commutes. In the admittedly anecdotal evaluation for its blog—a more complete analysis is in the works—the Volt averaged about 33 miles of all-electric driving on a full charge. During those first set of miles, the Volt’s fuel economy worked out to an impressive 89 mpg-equivalent (MPGe). “But before we jump with joy, remember, this applies only to the initial 33 miles of electric-only range,” wrote CR blogger Gabe Shenhar. After the battery was depleted, CR averaged only 30 mpg in overall mixed driving.

Maybe this will not prove to be typical, but considering the Prius’s consistent MPG in the high-40s, Consumer Reports offered this interim conclusion: “The Volt works, but depending on how it is used and where, it may not save you money, especially in the Northeast or California. In those regions especially, the Prius remains a proven, more cost-effective choice for green motoring.” That’s coming Consumer Reports, not a Prius fanzine.

Green-Effectiveness

Okay, so on a cost-basis—especially considering that the Volt’s base purchase price is roughly twice that of the base-level Prius—the regular old hybrid is at the very least something that green car advocates should consider. But what about a strictly environmental evaluation? Once again, the Prius might come out ahead.

John DeCicco, senior lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a pioneer in developing consumer-oriented automotive eco-ratings, recently crunched the numbers for his new rating system. He writes on his blog, “In an apples-to-apples comparison that tallies pollution from the tailpipe to refineries and power plants and beyond, the eco-advantage of highly efficient hybrid drive, as epitomized by the Prius, still shines.” DeCicco calls the Chevy Volt a “high roller” in all-electric mode, nearly approaching the LEAF’s 99 MPG equivalent—but downgrades the Volt when it comes to its heavier weight (meaning more pollution from manufacturing), ULEV certification (rather than PZEV), and the high mix of coal for electricity in some parts of the country.

Any one of these points can and should be argued from the other side, but the Prius’s consistent high mileage and squeaky-clean PZEV emissions status makes the Prius a compelling green vehicle. “Add it all up and the Toyota Prius pollutes 5% less than the Nissan Leaf and 21% less than the Chevy Volt,” DeCicco concludes.

All the Above

In the end, every car shopper can do his or her own research and conclude how important it is to get off oil for moral, political and macro-economic reasons—regardless what the experts say. And that’s exactly what engaged car shoppers are doing. As Abasile, one of our users on PluginCars.com, writes:

“Any EV’s environmental benefits are only as good as the gasoline-powered driving it is able to offset. For those who often require more range than current EVs provide, a hybrid can be a better choice. For that reason, we are now leaning toward buying a Prius rather than a LEAF at this time, in hopes of being able to purchase a longer range EV next time we are in the market for a car. Of course, some families might be able to really optimize their driving in the near-term by owning both a Prius and a LEAF.”


  • Anonymous

    The important thing is that the debate is open and we have every day more options. Time will tell which is the best alternative and the rest of the automakers will follow. Really good timing for mass production of these alternatives.

  • FamilyGuy

    The day that I get an EV or a plug-in hybrid, I’ll fork over the extra money to the electric company to make sure that 100% of my electric power comes from a wind farm. It’s an option that I have to pay a premium for and will be willing to do with have such a substantial electric commitment such as a car. For the EV, no fossil fuel. For the plug-in, reduced fossil fuel.

  • David

    Typo in 4th paragraph: “That’s coming FROM Consumer Reports, not a Prius fanzine.”

    Thanks guys.

  • Walt Sykes

    I wish these car companies would develop some battery & electrical interface standards like computer manufacturers with USB, RAM, and hard drive interfaces. It would be nice if you could rent extra batteries and hook them up to a socket in the trunk for a “longer than normal” trip. The Volt’s and Leaf’s ev range would be enough for my daily work commute, but on the weekends we sometimes drive 60-70 each way. If I could rent an additional battery and plug it in for the added range on the rare occasion I needed, I would definitely get a Leaf. Given the Volt’s gas engine as “backup power supply” it’s the best compromise. However, it’s new, limited availability, and expensive and with 0% for 60 months that’s why I bought a new Prius. Of course $4-5/gallon gas could drastically change the equation…

  • jim1961

    These are all great cars but I’m looking forward to the production of the Aptera 2e. The Aptera 2e achieves 179 MPGe. The Volt and LEAF are electricity hogs in comparison.

  • George Parrott

    I too have had a deposit with Aptera for the last 2+ years, but still no cars.

    So, I am transitioning from our two Toyota hybrids (a Prius and a Camry Hybrid) to a Volt AND a Leaf. We can use the Leaf for almost all our local commuting, and my wife and I go in totally different directions to work, so two cars are necessary. The Volt can run fully on the batteries for all of its commuting activity AND then when we need to go on longer trips, it will get AT LEAST as good a mileage return as the Camry Hybrid. Thus we wipe out ALL the fuel charges on one car and perhaps 90% of those costs on the Volt (vis-a-vis the Camry). Further our house is FULLY solar PV equipped with enough PV output to cover ALL the house draw AND to cover the night rate charges, via time of day balancing on costs, for charging both cars.

    And in the Sacramento Valley we have major smog problems for much of the year, so we will be doing a small bit toward reducing that issue as well as cutting our dependence on “foreign oil.”

  • boston

    Dan Akerson just turned off half his Volt fans with his cocky attitude and is making me regret our tax dollars used to save GM from bankruptcy. He clearly isn’t in this for the right reasons. GM needs to hide Akerson away from the camera, hire Chelsea Sexton for all their Volt PR and at least pretend to care about getting off oil. I’m leaning towards getting the plug-in Prius and then finding a job within 13 miles that will let me plug in during the day.

  • abasile

    We did indeed buy a used 2010 Prius and are really happy with it! We average 50+ mpg on both freeways and mountain roads, and the handling is fairly tight. While I’d still love to own a LEAF as well, buying a Prius now was the best way for us to go after “low hanging fruit”, displacing medium and long distance miles on lower mpg cars. It’s really a great value for the money, and has been tried and proven. The Volt also has promise, but $42K is a pretty penny!

  • kempf42

    “Of course, some families might be able to really optimize their driving in the near-term by owning both a Prius and a LEAF.”

    That is precisely what I am planning on doing. Not only that but:

    1) I had my 2008 Prius converted to a plug-in using A123′s system. At the time, it was the only one available and was expensive ($10K) but now there is a system from Eniger that costs half the price. We get a little more than 20 mi. on the extra battery, which is enough for daily commutes.

    2) I plan to “fuel” my Nissan Leaf and plug-in Prius from solar power generated from my roof. We have had a solar PV system for the last 6 years which completely offsets our bill including charging for the plug-in Prius but still requires that we draw 2K kwh a year unoffsetted from the grid. We are planning a new system that will be completely offsetted, including Leaf charging for around 8K miles a year (about what we do with our “around town” car) and our current usage for the plug-in Prius.

    jak

  • jdm

    Interesting – on the east coast, I just signed up for 100% wind power thru ‘clean currents’, and it was slightly cheaper than the rates that ‘Pepco’ was previously charging me. I encourage people to take a second look at wind power, the rates have been coming down.

  • jdm

    my prior comment was related to – family guy’s – comment above

  • Anonymous

    Walt, you might enjoy doing a search on ‘Shai Agassi’, he’s a guy I saw interviewed recently. His wrinkle on electric vehicles and the associated infrastructure, at least what I saw, is to have electric “filling stations” where you could quickly switch out your battery pack for a fresh one. You might make an analogy to the way we handle propane tank refills now – leave your old one, get a full new one. Anyway, your letter made me think of this, except you wouldn’t have to carry your own extra battery pack.

  • Antonio Cabeza

    It is comments like GM’s chief executive Dan Akerson’s that are stupid and without any basis with reality.The Toyota Prius is not only a much,much better car than the GM’s Volt but you could buy 2 Prius with the price of 1 Volt. No wonder The U.S.A. is in such a bad shape financially when we have people, like the above mentioned, running the place.

  • Libertarian Don

    All three cars have merits. My favorite in concept is the Volt which is the first practical electric car. Unfortunately, it is made by GM with a boastful CEO better suited to a low class reality show. The most important environmental step humanity can make is the elimination of oil dependency because the money from oil is being used to fund an intolerant and hateful ideology. This ideology is going to drag the world into another world war, send us back into the sixth century, or both. A Volt or Leaf running off of electricity generated from coal will have far less environmental impact than a global war or a sixth century lifestyle for 10 billion people. I just wish the Volt was being made by anyone but GM.

  • Laszlo

    I must congratulate you all for the professional level of discussion. Yes, this is a good debate.

    For now I will stick with my Gen II Prius. Even considering extending its EV range by adding a battery pack under the trunk space. Until some better than the current best energy storage method – Li-Ion batteries – is commercially available long distance motoring is not practical without the support of an ICE on board. According to some articles this will take between five to ten years. The beauty of a plug-in-hybrid is that some, if not all, daily drives can be done in EV mode. For the immediate future the PHEV is the only practical way to reduce our carbon footprint.
    As for market size, one would think that clever marketing could target the millions of downsizing, retiring baby boomers with one family car and put many of them into PHEVs. PHEVs will allow these folks to visit their grand kids in a neighboring town/state and drive themselves to Florida in the winter. Commercial volumes of production will reduce the cost of the batteries as well as increase the EV range.

  • John K.

    kempf42: You wrote, “1) I had my 2008 Prius converted to a plug-in using A123′s system. At the time, it was the only one available and was expensive ($10K) but now there is a system from Eniger that costs half the price.”

    I looked online for Eniger but was unable to find a website for them. Do you (or anyone else) know their contact info?

    Thanks!

  • pat

    VOLT is just a product that GM uses it to make the public thinks GM is still worth saving from going out of business. VOLT never intend to be mass produce or make money for GM. The battery being use on the VOLT is not proven for it reliability yet. Can you afford to replace the battery every 3 years on a battery running car? The reason GM get into trouble today is because its cars are not reliable. It costs a fortune to keep!
    On the other hand the Prius’s battery is being used by taxi company (Most heavy user) in the last ten years, and it proven to be extremely reliable. If Toyota not dare to put a Lithium ion battery powered car on the road, I will not buy any make of car power by Li ion.

  • KurtJax

    In case you (John K.) haven’t got this yet, it looks like “Enginer”, not Eniger.
    http://enginer.us/

  • Steven

    I’m a Prius owner. I know I’m a geek. It’s a geek-mobile. I owned a Corolla before it, also a somewhat geeky car. My Prius doesn’t get as much mileage as most of the posts I’ve read here. Of course, I discovered after purchasing it, I rarely drive below 60 mph. That being said, I’m tired of articles infused to sway people. I have no idea what CEO’s of Toyota have said about American cars or their companies. These articles do nothing for pushing toward using cleaner energy. Look at some of the comments here. Some people seem to be upset, even outraged by his comments. Why? What point does it serve. It’s a slightly controversial comment that only gets people upset because the article is meant to offend. And those Prius drivers that take offense to being told they are driving a “geek mobile” by one guy shouldn’t be driving a Prius or any other car out there that can give the impression of pre-conceived stereo-types. If they drove Hummers, they’d have to deal with people believing that have small genitals.

    Now on to my comments about these vehicles. I’m more excited about the Volt than I am about the Leaf. A lot of reasons come to mind, and one of them, admittedly is style. Some others include the 5 years free directions & connections On-Star feature w/ XM/NavTraffic/Weather and all its features including engine cut-off & vehicle slow down and personal concierge, as well as the Ultra-Energy-Saving Bose surround system w/ 60 Gb of storage and voice recognition. The 2 7″ HD screens touch-screens, the center console touch control switches. This is, in my opinion, bringing back sexy to geek mobiles. The On-Star feature alone lowers the price of insuring this car. I rarely see the features of each car posted when I read these articles, and none of them ever include estimates of insurance costs. In the end, I’ve done extensive research on all of the above cars. Since two of them won’t be sold in my area any time soon, I’ll be able to do even more. But at this point, the Volt is ahead – far ahead. And yes, style has something to do with it. I’m still a geek and proud of it.

  • Steven

    Now settle down there Pat. Your broken English leads me to believe you’re probably from somewhere other than the US. I’ve driven several Toyota’s, a couple of Honda’s, a Mazda and a Nissan. I’ve also driven a Malibu Classic, Edge, Cavalier, Cadillac CTS, and Mountaineer. I’ve had all of these cars over an extensive period of time in my family, and quality can only come from each individual driving experience and being objective. Of the cars on my list, the worst experiences I’ve had were with Toyota products. Toyota and it’s government have been pushing the quality motion for years. It’s an advertising campaign, and has a bit of brain-washing along with it. The USA used to use this mode of advertising, but it was cut from the budget. Subsequently, it’s budget cut was even used in a movie called “Dave” where the acting President want to cut spending from “a program that makes people feel good about a car they already own”. I can tell you, that once pointed out to owners of similar makes and models, they all agreed they had the same problems. For instances, have you ever noticed the majority of Corolla’s built in the 90′s rarely have all of their tail lights and license plate lights all working at the same time? Civic owners also often share the same experience with having issues with their air conditioner. Even with my experiences with Toyota, I still own a Prius. It’s a good car. It’s not great. My Rx7 was a ton of fun to drive. But of all the cars I have ever owned, the only one I still have is my 1976 Malibu Classic. The engine has 650,000 miles on it and the paint is still there. The Honda, Mazda, Nissan & Toyota all had terrible paint jobs and cheap metal underneath. So say what you will about quality, but each person has their own belief in what quality is. I don’t need to be told, I’ve experienced it. Certainly, fixing some things cost more than a lamp bulb, but nobody ever thinks that they’ve gone through 12 bulbs in 12 months due to faulty wiring because bulbs are cheap and an easy fix. There were plenty more problems, that was just one example. The Volt is a genuine effort, and more innovative than any car on the market because it blends Electric with Extended Range. Lithium-Ion is a proven technology, just not so much in automobiles. I feel GM is making a valid effort. It can be seen in their newest line of Buick and Cadillac products. Nothing beats a CTS-V. In fact, the entire “V” series of Cadillac is a serious improvement to anything that’s ever compare to BMW or Audi. One of the largest fleet vehicles in the world is GMC, far more than Toyota. Companies choose GMC fleet vehicles because of experience and reliability. Dumping Hummer, Saturn, Fiat, Isuzu, Subaru, Suzuki, Pontiac, Lotus, Saab & Oldsmobile and selling to NGMCO prove GM is making efforts to improve their brand. Vauxhall, Opel, Holden & Daewoo are major fixtures in their respective areas and many of those owners are very happy with their products. In fact, Holden badge engineered Toyota & Nissan products and dumped them solely to take on “a superior product in GM”. There are past & present GM employees that have a huge passion for automobiles as well as technology that have forgotten more than any Toyota executive will ever know. Politics and infrastructure within their industry was the downfall that didn’t let those others focus & create. They all felt like they needed to compete with Toyota, and eventually started making boring, lame, geeky cars like Toyota has been making for years. No style, no personality. In the 90′s, there was no difference between a Geo & Toyota. They were even made with the same products by many of the same people. Geo is no longer around. That says a lot about Toyota’s of the 90′s. Furthermore, if you feel the need to get your point across regarding batteries, please don’t mention Taxi’s and follow that up with “extremely reliable”. There is no such thing as extreme reliability. I’m sure I’ve made a few typos here, and some grammatically incorrect phrasing, and I’m sure if I wanted to proof-read this I would catch them all, but it’s 1:30 am and I’m just expressing a few points. The main one being, don’t try to sell us your Japanese propaganda here, we’re all stocked up. If Audi made the Prius, we’d still drive it, we don’t care that it’s made by Toyota. We care what it does, regardless of reliability. The next car that catches my attention is the Chevy Volt or the Nissan Leaf, because they both do more than Prius for our driving needs and we won’t think twice about leaving one company to go to the next because in the end, Toyota does not pay me to drive their cars so there is absolutely no reason for a consumer to be loyal to any brand. Only a stubborn fool would express loyalty toward a multi-million dollar business. If they don’t make an ER-EV soon, they will suffer the loss of business to those companies that do.